Since winning Academy Awards for writing "Million Dollar Baby" and Best Picture and Screenplay for 2004's excellent drama "Crash", Paul Haggis has been a very busy man. He also wrote the recent James Bond blockbuster "Casino Royale". His latest project "In The Valley Of Elah" is a somewhat controversial film that has also received numerous critical accolades not to mention a string of other nominations, including Best Actor for Tommy Lee Jones.
The film begins by introducing us to Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones), an aging Army Sergeant and ex-military policeman whose son has returned from an 18 month tour of duty in Iraq, but has disappeared without a trace from his Army military base in Fort Rudd, New Mexico. He packs up his pickup and leaves his wife (Susan Surandon) behind and goes to New Mexico to do an investigation himself.
When he arrives he heads right for his son's barrack's and meets with some of his buddies, including some who saw him the evening before he vanished. It is obvious from the beginning that he is extremely determined to get to the facts and he receives a huge amount of respect from all of those he encounters. He ends up staying in a cheap hotel, and as he tries to get sleep he is repeatedly disturbed by disturbing flashes from a not too distant past involving phone conversations with his son. He also keeps going over numerous digital photos sent to him from Iraq by his son, Mike (Jonathon Tucker). He is trying to put the pieces of a puzzle together, and his telephone conversations with his wife Joan are also some of the most effective drama I've seen for quite some time. The performances are extremely powerful and so realistic you will forget you are watching a film, that's how great this movie is.
After stealing his son's cell phone from the base he takes it to a hacker who opens up the digital videos and pictures stored on the phone. It is here that we realize that although Hank may be from a different era, he will go to any means to uncover the truth about his son's whereabouts, and it is fascinating watching him glimpse the footage, scrambling for clues.
Eventually he goes to the local police and tries to talk them into helping him; he talks with Det. Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron), but gets caught up in the red tape of bureaucracy since it is a military matter. He begins to get frustrated. Of course when his son's charred and severed corpse is recovered from the desert the real story begins and Emily Sanders decides to help him on his quest to find his son's killers, even though the actual case is being handled by the military and being led by Lt. Kirklander (Jason Patric). From here the mystery unravels and Hank also has some searching to do inside his very soul, because in the end the very reasons for his second son's death (his other son died in a helicopter accident in Iraq). What he finds out in the end is very troubling, and let me tell you that this is one of the best films of the year!
Tommy Lee Jones turns in another standout performance, one that is quiet and dark, subdued and brilliant. You can truly feel his pain, and this film will have you involved from the moment it begins. The supporting cast is also great, and it is hard to believe this film is even remotely controversial or that anyone would even suggest it is overly liberal or leftist, it simply tells a story and it isn't pro-war or anti-war for almost the entire film. Ether way, all politics aside, it is the first major film I've seen to even remotely deal with the subject of what is happening to our young men and women over there and I simply thought it was an excellently crafted drama that held my attention and had me very involved in the characters. Don't be afraid to watch it even if you love war and carnage, because it's a great film.
The transfer is also very good, arriving to us in the form of an HD-DVD Combo that arrives as promised a few weeks after its Blu-ray counterpart. The picture is framed at 2.4:1 in 1080p and it looks very good, though the intentionally muted colors don't really pop off the screen like some may expect of a new release. Still the image is very detailed and the textures of the clothing and the objects in the background come across with an added dimension and there is a constant grain that creates a very film like texture, all in all a very good transfer, although my copy did suffer some severe glitches that were so severe I had to actually watch the whole second half of the disc on the DVD side, which is not good, I hope the death of HD-DVD doesn't mean we are going to see a drop in the quality of these releases, because that would certainly be disturbing. Let's see if anyone else has this problem, perhaps Toshiba will offer a firmware patch. I don't know, but I will be interested to find out, because my disc is simply unwatchable and I've tried several times. On the flip side the standard side looks great upconverted, also.
The audio is actually quite great, it is brought to us with a Dolby TrueHD track that brings all of the film's subtle texture to us with a pronounced clarity that is perhaps not quite that necessary it being such a dialogue heavy film. But who's complaining, the music also shines through with an added punch and it simply sounds fantastic until that error message pops up. Then you get to flip the disc over and you'll probably not notice that much difference even between the regular Dolby Digital side because that's how this kind of film is. The standard side sounded just fine, no audible pops, crackles or hisses.
The special features aren't presented in high definition, but they are of excellent quality. The standout feature is two part documentary that runs about 43 minutes. They are called 'After Iraq' and 'Coming Home' and chronicle the filmmakers' dedication to the reality of war and its effects on the participants after they return home. In fact, many of the supporting cast are actual veterans of the war in Iraq. It's fascinating watching Haggis interview them and learn about what it was like over there and it is also to their credit that their performances are actually very well done. It's one of those features that is thoroughly enjoyable and enlightening from beginning to end and it is very well put together and edited. The picture quality, though not high def, looks great upconverted and fills the whole screen at 1.85:1.
We also have some deleted scenes that are definitely worth watching and aren't just the extended scene fluff we are used to.
So, "In The Valley Of Elah" is certainly another great film in a year when we have seen many great motion pictures. It could have gone overboard and ended up a mess, but Haggis keeps things toned down and effectively tells a story that will leave you impressed. The performances are great and it is about time someone tried to tackle the difficult subject. Unfortunately the HD-DVD version did suffer some glitches, rendering it unwatchable about halfway through the film, but other than that, it was a great presentation and the extras are quite well done.